Google Redirects Its China Problem

Google may have found a solution to make good on its promise to stop filtering search results for Google China users without shutting down its operations in the Communist country. Under the new plan, revealed on Monday, Google's mainland China users will be redirected to an uncensored search engine. Meanwhile, the company has posted a publicly accessible online monitor showing which Google services are being censored or blocked by the Chinese government.

While the move may be a solution to Google's objection to operating a search engine that restricted access to information for Chinese citizens, it's not clear how the Chinese government will react. So far, China has not blocked access to the only search engine in China that allows for the free flow of information--something the Chinese government has never allowed--but it's not clear how tolerant China will be with Google's new plan.

Here's a breakdown of the latest developments in the ongoing battle of wills between the world's largest search engine and the world's most populous nation.

Google.cn Gateway

Google's censored Chinese search engine, Google.cn has been shut down, and visitors to the site are now automatically redirected to Google's uncensored Hong Kong search engine, Google.com.hk. Google is doing this despite the fact that China requires that all search engines operating in the Communist country agree to filter information the government believes will threaten "national security and society's public interest." Google said in a blog post that its decision to move Chinese search traffic to the Hong Kong site is "entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China."

Google's Hong Kong-based search engine provides uncensored search results for all kinds of information the Chinese government wants people to have limited access to including the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989 and the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Although Hong Kong has been under Chinese control since the British handed the region over to the Communist country in 1997, Hong Kong maintains a certain amount of autonomy from mainland China and personal freedoms are not curtailed in Hong Kong as they are in the rest of the country.

Google China Offices Are Open

Despite suggestions in some media reports that Google is pulling out of China, the only change so far is the URL redirection for search traffic visiting Google.cn. The company will continue its research and development work in China, and maintain an advertising sales staff in the country. Google said the size of its China-based sales staff will depend on how many Google.cn users can access Google.com.hk.

Evil Meter

In what may be one of the most brilliant moves to shine a light on Chinese censorship, Google has created a Web page, called "Mainland China service availability" where anyone in the world can see all the Google services blocked by the Chinese government on any given day. Google's so-called Evil Meter, a title coined by Wired's Steven Levy, is clearly intended to shine a light on the level of censorship and information filtering going on in the Communist country.

Google says it will update the China service monitor every day, and the information appears to reflect Google service levels from the previous twenty-four hours. At the time of this writing early Tuesday, Google's site was reporting Sunday's Google service availability in China.

The People's Republic Speaks Out

So far the Chinese government has not made it clear how it would react to Google's decision to redirect Google.cn searches to the company's Hong Kong site. In a news briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang reportedly reiterated that companies operating in China must obey Chinese law, and that the government "would resolve problems accordingly," according to the IDG News Service. Qin did not say whether Google's actions violated Chinese law or how the government would react to the search giant's decision to redirect its Chinese search traffic.

Murky Waters

Reporters weren't the only ones left with an unclear picture of how China would react to Google's decision. In an interview with The New York Times, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said the company "was not given a clear cut stamp of approval" from the Chinese government on Google's plan to redirect site traffic, suggesting that China may be willing to tolerate Google's actions. "There was a sense that Hong Kong was the right step," Brin told the Times.

While the matter does not appear to be resolved yet, Google may have found a solution allowing it to operate within the Communist country without compromising its mission to "facilitate access to information for the entire world." Whether or not the Chinese government can live with Google's decision is not yet clear.

Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul).

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